REVIEW: Dogfight, Southwark Playhouse

The British Theatre Academy completes their Summer season at the Southwark Playhouse with a heartfelt production of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s musical.

(c) Eliza Wilmot

Based on the 1991 film which starred River Phoenix, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s musical is a story of two clear halves – one that initially has no redeeming features in terms of the aggressiveness of the marines at the centre of the story before transforming into an actually sweet and tender love story.

The story follows a group of marines who arrive in San Francisco before heading to Vietnam and arrange a party in which a ‘Dog fight’ takes place – a truly awful game in which each marine places money in a pot, with the one who brings the least attractive date to the party winning the money. At the centre of this is the relationship between Eddie and Rose that sees them grow and develop as individuals as well as together as the consequences of the game awakens things about themselves they didn’t even realise.

It has to be said that Peter Duncan’s book never flinches away from the brutal nature of the marines attitude, who feel the only way they can get through going to Vietnam is by acting tough and aggressive to the women and those not in the military – a disregard reflected in the script that can make the audience recoil from time to time in 2019 – but sadly reflects the attitude of some of the military in the 1960’s. It might not be glamorous – but the honesty actually allows us to see the growing maturity of Eddie and his friends Bernstein and Boland as the reality of what they going out to Vietnam to do hits them. But then the story is also wonderfully contrasted with romantic (if sweetly awkward) relationship between Eddie and Rose.

Dean Johnson’s slick and authentic production successfully captures the spirit of Dogfight, allowing the audience to see the story unfolding from all perspectives. This is helped by George Lyons choreography which is shown at its best through the more military styled numbers such as ‘Hometown Hero’s Ticker Tape Parade’ and movement as highlighted during the powerful scene in which the marines are in Vietnam (which is also wonderfully lit by Andrew Exeter). It is a very grounded and honest production at its best during the more tender moments – particularly during numbers ‘First Date/Last Night’ and ‘Pretty Funny’ that really shine.

The cast also offer up wonderfully mature performances that subtly capture the changes that their characters go through beautifully. The way in which Stephen Lewis-Johnston conveys Eddie’s transformation from arrogant military hero to a vulnerable marine traumatised by what he experienced in Vietnam is truly touching. He is well matched with Claire Keenan’s gentle and immensely sympathetic Rose – it is a graceful and charming performance. While Matthew Michaels as Bernstein and Joe Munn are equally impressive as the aggressive but increasingly vulnerable Bernstein and Boland.

Powerful, tender and honest – this is a production that rounds off the British Theatre Academy’s Summer season at the Southwark Playhouse with style.

By Emma Clarendon

Dogfight continues to play at the Southwark Playhouse until the 31st August.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

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